Don’t Worry, Be Happy: Parkinson’s and the Limits of Positive Thinking

Don’t Worry, Be Happy: Parkinson’s and the Limits of Positive Thinking

I don’t want to take away from Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman or singer-songwriter Bobby McFerrin, but the idea that a pair of rose-colored “don’t worry” glasses will change my life for the better has never sat well with me. Pollyanna is not a guest in my home.

“Look at all the wonderful things in your life. All your needs are provided for — no worries,” someone said to my wife and me recently as we described the temporary ruin of stagnation. But pouring saccharin sentiments over the burnt toast of my life won’t remove its acrid flavor.

I often write about having a positive action-based wellness plan. My approach is attitude plus behavior equal consequences. My positive outlook is wisdom-based and engaged in compassion and not on my ability to see a half-full glass. One can try to view the chronic disease glass as being half full, but the reality is that it is also half empty. I wish that my muscular problems and other Parkinson’s symptoms were absent. Viewing the glass as half full is not an action plan — it’s more of an “I’m tired of this right now” statement.

Many authors have extolled positive thinking: Norman Vincent Peale and Norman Cousins, among others. Choosing how to act, think, and feel creates patterns. We return to those patterns when times get tough. Another way of putting it is, “Fake it until you make it.” It seems vacuous to assume that “faking” happiness will remove the causes of unhappiness or make circumstances appear to be better than they are. Well-meaning people who propose the “don’t worry, be happy” solution don’t have a clear understanding of how Parkinson’s and other chronic diseases affect our daily lives. What we need is a well-designed and enacted wellness map — not rose-colored glasses.

Though my partner and I have moments of frustration and utter despair, we manage to pull ourselves up — as we have throughout our lives — to find the inner and spiritual strength that enables us to continue. It’s a lifelong habit for both of us, and as a team, we support each other through the continued challenges, taking turns with compassion and strength when the other one falters under the burden.

Do we worry? Yes, but we move gradually toward more acceptance. Are we happy? The glass remains half full, and we are grateful for the happiness and blessings in our lives. But it is now time to replenish the glass and move into deeper compassion, finding strength in the belief that all things happen for a reason and in their own time. We will not shy away from the work that needs to be done in our lives and for others with chronic diseases.


Note: Parkinson’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Parkinson’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Parkinson’s disease.

I am a retired professor and research scientist along with being an artist, philosopher, writer, therapist and mystic. I am also a husband, father, grandfather, master gardener and Vietnam Vet. All of these roles influence how PD interacts with my life’s journey.
I am a retired professor and research scientist along with being an artist, philosopher, writer, therapist and mystic. I am also a husband, father, grandfather, master gardener and Vietnam Vet. All of these roles influence how PD interacts with my life’s journey.
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  1. laura seymour says:

    I disagree with your view about positive thinking. I am not one to sugar coat things, but my positivity lies in thoughts that have a positive direction and purpose. I acknowledge gratitude for what I have and then state a belief to the universe that is in a positive direction for things I hope will change. For example, “Universe, I can walk for five minutes longer than yesterday.” or “Universe, my symptoms are going to take a long time to progress to Stage 5.” Focusing on a goal or desire in a positive way is better for your mental health as well as your physical state than adopting a negative attitude and focusing on what’s lacking.

  2. Shandee Jones says:

    I have a positive outlook most of the time. I don’t know if I’m a glass half- full or not person,but I know that for me being positive has made me healthier and happier. I know I have PD and I wish that I didn’t. I have my bad days but I have good ones too. All any of us have is today and I choose today to be positive.

  3. Barbara AK Porter says:

    My husband died of PD with dementia after having “the Disease” for thirty years. My son was diagnosed at 27 with PD with dystonia. I have been where my son is and where he is going and it is a long, difficult path. Don’t send me platitudes or sunrises with hopeful messages. They do not comfort me.

    • Dr. C says:

      Thanks, Barbara, for your story. Perhaps just having someone say, “what I can do to help?” goes a long way. Of course, with that comes the hope that “someone” will actually follow through and really help, even if just being a shoulder to lean on or to listen.
      I appreciate your reading the columns and your comment.
      Dr. C.

    • Maria Cesena says:

      I’ve just been officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s though I’ve suspected for a long time that I’ve had it.
      As, I’ve started to tell people of my diagnosis it makes me very angry when they respond with superficial platitudes.
      They don’t understand the grief I feel, the loss and despair of an uncertain future.
      Even family don’t know what to say to me. I’m not at the stage where I see the glass as half-full. Right now, it’s half-empty.

      • Dr. C says:

        Hi Maria ~ Appreciate you reading the columns and taking the time to share your thoughts. There are “good days” and “bad days” and we can only take what our day gives us. There will be days where the glass is half-full, and those days are precious. Don’t worry about having a day where the glass looks half-empty. Family and friends may feel our grief, loss and despair and they will have their own measure of those same feelings. Keep reaching out but don’t be reluctant to share that the day is what it is. There will be many good days to be thankful for having. Embrace those days.
        Dr. C.

  4. Alex Miller says:

    Absolutely love the “saccharin on burnt toast” statement!

    As for well-meaning but ill-advised well-wishers, people who don’t know what to say should learn to shut up. I’ve seen little printed guides for “What Not to Say….” in case of bereavement, loss of a child, etc. There should be one for WNTS to People with Chronic Illness.

    • Dr. C says:

      thanks, Alex. Or better yet… a guide for opening discussion about the issues PD patient might be undergoing. Avoidance of the discussion doesn’t make it go away or get better. See next column for this week on more thoughts around the healing relationship.
      Appreciate your reading the columns and your comments.
      Dr. C.

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